NBA

Aaron Gordon’s new, simplified role is making everything easier for the surging Nuggets

Aaron Gordon has a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the number 50. No player in NBA history has scored more of them in the Slam Dunk Contest, yet Gordon has never actually won the event. It’s a dishonor that Gordon has literally chosen to wear on his chest. When Gordon got traded to the Denver Nuggets, he decided his jersey number would be 50 to highlight the injustice.

Fortunately, with his first week in Denver now in the books, Gordon is on his way to developing a much more positive association with his uniform number. Through three games as a Nugget, Gordon has attempted 18 2-point shots. Eight of them have been dunks. The man who literally released a documentary entitled “Mr. 50” about his dunk contest disappointments is now flirting with a 50 percent dunk rate on his 2-point shots. Squint a little bit and he’s already there. Are these not essentially dunks? 

There could be no better encapsulation of how easy the Nuggets are making basketball for Gordon. Seven years serving as one of Orlando’s ball-handlers by default so burdened Gordon that he became known for dunks that didn’t even come during games. Denver simplified the game for him so significantly that he’s suddenly getting spoonfed those same dunks in games that actually count. The results have been staggering.

The Nuggets are scoring 125 points per 100 possessions with Gordon on the floor, more than seven points higher than any offense in NBA history has posted over a full season. They’re allowing only 95.7 points per 100 possessions during his minutes. No full-season defense has matched that since 2004. Denver’s new starting five of Gordon, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton has played only 64 total minutes together… and in those minutes, they’ve outscored their opponents by 48 points. They came one garbage time layup from Terance Mann short of Gordon’s favorite number. 

And the remarkable thing about it is, Gordon isn’t doing anything especially intricate. As DNVR Sport’s Adam Mares noted, his first real practice with the team won’t even come until Saturday. So far, he’s gotten by on athleticism and activity, but provides both so readily that Denver has been able to weaponize it without compromising any part of their system. This isn’t a complex play-design. It’s a basic back-cut that stems out of Gordon’s realization that the NBA’s best passer has the ball at the high post and has dragged Atlanta’s only rim-protector out onto the perimeter with him. 

Gordon is quickly learning how to take advantage of Jokic’s basketball IQ by cutting at the first sign of a defensive breakdown. When Reggie Jackson gets mismatched onto Jokic, Ivica Zubac has to jump over and double him. Jokic destroyed Clipper double-teams throughout their second-round series last season, and striving to take away the obvious pass, Kawhi Leonard helped the helper by leaving Gordon to take on Murray. As soon as Leonard makes his move, Gordon makes his own. The result is an easy layup. 

All Gordon did there was take what the defense gave him. He trusted his teammate to take advantage of a mistake and it led to free points. Yet through three games, the two are already starting to develop quick-hitting chemistry. It’s Gordon who initiates this pick-and-roll by jumping up to Jokic’s level before he even catches the pass. The result is effectively unguardable. Gordon makes quick contact with Zubac, but slips before Marcus Morris can get to the level of the screen and effectively deter the pass. Gordon is off to the races by the time Zubac realizes he needs to switch, and draws the foul as a result. 

Those quick reflexes and even quicker feet have made an enormous impact in transition. The Nuggets rank No. 29 in pace and No. 18 in fast-break points per game. This is not a team that tends to run much. Gordon demands it. He’s right in the middle of the pack when he kicks off this fastbreak with a strip of Seth Curry. It doesn’t matter that Philadelphia technically has defenders between him and the basket. He’s the first player to realize that the ball is about to change hands and uses that headstart to race ahead for a breakaway dunk.

These are all things Denver wants to do but had lacked the personnel for. Paul Millsap isn’t getting out on the break at 36 years old. JaMychal Green is primarily a shooter. Porter is too, though he comes with ball-handling ambitions. Gordon does not. Through three games in Denver, he’s done nothing but fit into a pre-existing infrastructure through his infectious energy and constant movement. That’s an archetype the Nuggets have lacked throughout the Jokic era. Gordon’s presence has optimized this roster by giving it the sort of athlete capable of allowing others to fall into roles they are better suited for. 

Barton is especially appreciative of that on defense. “(Gordon) put everybody back in their place where now I can guard my natural position at the two,” he told reporters after Thursday’s win. Barton, a 6-6 string bean at 190 pounds, has played the bulk of his minutes at small forward this season and has even dabbled in some power forward with small-ball units. That often meant defending top opposing wings, especially when Gary Harris went down. Gordon has that covered now. He smothered Leonard in Denver’s victory over the Clippers by showcasing both athleticism and effort that the Nuggets lacked all season. 

The block is undoubtedly the highlight here, but the combination of tools that makes it possible is what should excite Nuggets fans. It takes real physical heft to fight through that screen, and few defenders on Earth can match that size and strength with the fluidity it takes to stay with Kawhi here. Gordon manages to scamper back in front of Kawhi from behind the screen, and then change directions on a dime as he drives to the basket. Gordon’s hand blocked the shot, but his hips positioned him to do so. 

Barton, through no fault of his own, can’t do this. Most defenders can’t. It usually takes a village to stop a scorer like Kawhi, but Denver acquired Gordon hoping he could stop players like Leonard without the help of complex schemes and extra resources devoted through help defense. Their bet largely paid off on Thursday. This is Gordon going mano-a-mano with a two-time Finals MVP and winning.

These are the simplest ways of winning basketball games. Trusting your players to win individual matchups. Moving into empty spaces. Taking advantage of opportunities the other team presents. It’s the kind of basketball that Gordon is allowing the Nuggets to play right now. It’s not as flashy as the trophy Gordon’s 50-point dunks failed to win him, but after years of toiling on the lottery-bound Magic, it will be far more rewarding when it helps him and his Nuggets to 50-win seasons and beyond. 



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